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The Undefeated by Una McCormack3 stars
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Back in the Roman Empire, a bill before the Senate to require slaves to wear distinctive clothing was voted down, under the practical reasoning that “it would be a mistake to show the wretches how numerous they truly are.” Massive empires, especially those where the systemic violation of human rights is baked right into the cake, usually fall because they’re a lot more fragile than they let on. They expand too far too fast, so that they can no longer defend their borders effectively. Or, there’s a vast populace who have made up their minds they’ve been too long oppressed, and they are just 100% done with the whole thing.

The Undefeated is a quiet and introspective novella that explores the theme of colonialism through the lens of a protagonist who grew up as a child of privilege and is only, late in life, coming to terms with her own complicity in a system that she has nonetheless dedicated her life to confronting. Monica Greatorex grew up in the wealthy enclave of Torello on the planet Sienna. Sienna is located deep in space in a system facing annexation by the all-consuming Interstellar Commonwealth, which conquers independent worlds not by force of arms, but through destabilization of local governments and economies.

Una McCormack devotes much care and detail to Monica’s character development. We first meet Monica as she is returning to Sienna at the age of sixty, after a lifetime dedicated to a thriving career in advocacy journalism, the result of a personal awakening upon seeing the effects of the Commonwealth’s expansion on the poorest citizens of outlying worlds.

But there’s an even greater threat looming now. Human society in this future is, to put it bluntly, a slaveholding society. The jenjer are a genetically engineered class of bonded servants. For at least fifty years, they have been breaking free of those bonds — specifically, the drugs that their human masters use to help keep their metabolisms from overloading due to their enhancements — and rumor has it that vast, merciless armies of them are sweeping across the Commonwealth, bent on inexorable revenge. As Monica arrives on Sienna, with her own jenjer manservant, she finds wave after wave of terrified refugees abandoning the planet for who knows what safe haven. Returning to Torello, she finds the formerly luxurious village of her youth dilapidated and nearly empty. The story then presents us with scenes from her youth, and her very first encounter with a rogue jenjer, that finally allows her to piece together a greater understanding of what has been unfolding all these years.

The story is leisurely in its approach, maybe a bit too leisurely at times, McCormack unveiling its secrets at a deliberate pace. McCormack’s prose has the interesting effect of making this tale of the far future feel like a relic of the past. It’s easy to imagine everything taking place in some provincial European town in the 1930s.

One thing I found very effective about The Undefeated that has displeased some other critics is the way in which the jenjer threat is always offstage, looming in the distance, like an earthquake you know is overdue. In SFF stories, it’s usual to make these threats always overt, but in fact, we don’t always have to see the Death Star blowing up a planet to boost narrative tension. The fear of not knowing what’s coming, only that it’s going to be very very bad, makes for an extremely compelling undercurrent of dread. McCormack, quite wisely, makes clear the short-sighted greed and oppressiveness of the Commonwealth without making the jenjer out to be noble freedom-fighting heroes either. When Monica’s own jenjer looks her calmly in the eyes and simply says, “We’re coming,” it’s a chilling moment. There is never a way to win freedom from subjugation without things getting a whole lot worse before they get better. People will suffer on all sides, and many of them won’t necessarily deserve it. And there’s never any guarantee a better world will rise from the ashes.